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Howard, Bryant lead surging Lakers past Blazers

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Associated Press
12/29/2012 1:22:53 AM
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LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant's streak of 10 straight 30-point games ended only because he spent the fourth quarter on the bench alongside Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in a blowout win.

The way the Los Angeles Lakers are playing lately, Bryant has reason to hope he'll spend less time cramming boxscores and more time riding the pine.

Howard had 21 points and 14 rebounds, Bryant scored 27 points and the Lakers never trailed in their sixth win in seven games, 104-87 over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night.

Pau Gasol had 15 points and nine rebounds as the Lakers closed out their 2012 schedule by climbing back to .500 (15-15) in their rocky season. Los Angeles had little trouble rolling past the Blazers, taking a 20-point lead in the first half and methodically dissecting Portland's defence with another fluid offensive performance.

"It was just energy," Bryant said. "We're playing really well. We've just got to keep it going."

The Lakers earned an easy fourth quarter with dominance in the first three, when they resembled the offensive powerhouse everybody expected to see in purple and gold this year.

"I'm a big believer that the ball will find energy," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "If you put energy on the floor, you end up with a good game."

Nash's playmaking again set an impressive tone for the Lakers, who outrebounded the Blazers 52-44 and took a 27-point lead late while scoring 23 fast-break points. Nash had 10 assists and six points while playing just 27 minutes in his fourth game back from a seven-week absence with a small fracture in his leg, the result of a collision with Portland's Damian Lillard on Oct. 31 in Nash's second game with the Lakers.

"We're obviously still a new team," Nash said. "It's new to me. I'm new to the offence. We're trying to figure it out. I think we're growing more and more cohesive, but I've got a long way to go."

The biggest impact was made by Howard, who played with noticeable urgency on both ends after a lacklustre outing in Denver two days ago, blocking three shots and even hitting four straight free throws when Portland briefly played Hack-a-Howard with the 50 per cent foul shooter in the second quarter.

"We just came out and we played hard tonight from the beginning," Howard said. "Our effort was there. We played inside-out, ran the ball, and our defence was real good tonight. And Pau was looking like (Dirk) Nowitzki out there. Pau Nowitzki hit two 3s."

Yes, even Gasol appeared to have little trouble getting open shots -- including those two 3-pointers -- despite playing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, a recently diagnosed condition that will only get better with rest. The Lakers have the weekend off before returning Tuesday against Philadelphia.

LaMarcus Aldridge scored 26 points before sitting out the final minutes with a bruised chest for cold-shooting Portland, which lost for just the second time in eight games. Los Angeles' defence held Lillard, Portland's star rookie, to 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting.

"They just outworked us from top to bottom and played harder than us," Lillard said. "And because of how aggressive they were, they made shots. They scored transition points, and they're not even a running team."

Will Barton scored 11 points for Portland and Nicolas Batum added 10. Aldridge kept the Blazers fairly competitive during the first three quarters, but his teammates combined for 24-of-70 shooting and couldn't keep up after Aldridge sat down.

"It happened on a drive to the basket against Dwight when I tried to dunk it," Aldridge said. "I was exposed, and I got hit on a soft spot on my chest. I came down and I couldn't really breathe. I'm a little sore and I'll probably be worse tomorrow, but I'll be OK."

Portland hosts Philadelphia on Saturday in its final game before the new year.

The Lakers came out with more energy and aggression than they showed in Wednesday's defence-deficient loss at Denver, hitting 14 of their first 21 shots and jumping to a 12-point lead in the first quarter. Los Angeles then made a 12-0 run to a 20-point lead shortly before halftime, with Gasol hitting a 3-pointer from straightaway to cap it.

At halftime, the Lakers retired the No. 52 jersey of Jamaal Wilkes, the Hall of Fame scorer who won three of his four NBA titles with the Lakers. Wilkes, a three-time All-Star with an unorthodox jump shot, choked up while thanking his teammates and fellow Lakers greats including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and James Worthy, who all joined Wilkes for the ceremony.

NOTES: G Wesley Matthews, the Blazers' fourth-leading scorer with 15 points per game, missed his third straight game with an injured left hip. ... Gasol made a 3-pointer in his third straight game, a first in his NBA career. ... Fans received a replica Wilkes jersey at the door, and director Penny Marshall wore it in her courtside seat.

Dwight Howard (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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